REVIEW: (Concert Orchestra, Fagen) Conductor and players capture nature of music

Conductor and players capture nature of music

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer |
October 9, 2012

Conductor Arthur Fagen chose the cerebral and the visceral for his program with the Indiana University Concert Orchestra in the Musical Arts Center Sunday evening.

The cerebral was contributed by Claude Baker, the Jacobs School-based composer of always interesting music, this time a piece called “Marchenbilder” or “Fairy-Tale Images.” The visceral, in this case meaning deeply versus crudely emotional, came from Tchaikovsky, his well-known Symphony Number 4. They made for an intriguing combination, particularly because the orchestra, intuitively led by Maestro Fagen, played them both so very well.

Baker wrote “Marchenbilder” on request, in 2005, from Mario Venzago, then music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that institution. How ironic that just a few years later, Venzago is long gone from the scene, after squabbles with management, and the orchestra is, at the moment, in crisis mode, with contract negotiations between players and management in increasingly bitter stall. It’s a sad and shameful state of affairs that citizens and leaders in Indianapolis should quickly strive to solve, lest the ISO lose its stature and, quite possibly, its current music director, the talented young Krzysztof Urbanski.

Here in Bloomington, fortunately, we’re getting plenty of orchestral music, and it has been uncommonly good throughout a string of programs this year and season, including Sunday’s. Baker’s composition proved a provocative opener. Instigator Venzago had suggested that the requested composition be designed to partner Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, the Third, at a future planned concert. Baker, in program notes, says he expanded on that request by building a work that compliments all four of Schumann’s symphonies and more.

He happens to be a composer who often uses musical quotes, and in “Marchenbilder,” one can hear hints of Schumannesque content and style in brief glimmers of exposition. In addition, he explains, the work’s three movements are meant to honor pieces for viola, including ones by Brahms (the Sonata Opus 120, Number 1) and Berlioz (“Harold in Italy”).

But never mind all that. What matters is Baker has shaped an interesting and sagaciously orchestrated composition, one that speaks subtly versus clamorously, in controlled manner rather than extravagantly. It is contemplative instead of action-filled; the music moves along judiciously. Whatever fairy tales Baker had in mind are of a subdued nature, a touch surreal, a touch mysterious. The music prompts thinking, not emotional release. Fagen and the orchestra gave “Marchenbilder” a properly refined and cleanly articulated reading. Strings and woodwinds, called upon to do the heaviest lifting, lifted nobly.

Tchaikovsky’s verbal explanation for his Fourth Symphony addresses fate, personal despair and loneliness and, in the final movement, offers counsel: that to solve unhappiness, one should forget oneself and indulge in the joys of others. The music, developed not only in movements but segments, weeps and wails and mulls dreamily and dances and struggles and shouts and, ultimately, rejoices. There is no holding back in this score.

Sunday’s performance certainly did not hold back either. Conductor and players captured the febrile nature of the music. In so doing, however, they did not lose sight of boundaries; the structural weavings Tchaikovsky so craftily created remained in place, proportioned and weighed for maximum impact. Form was observed, making the symphony’s excitable substance all the more powerful.

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